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The Year The Moon Stands Still


It had been unseasonably hot all day and the great standing stones at Callanish shimmered in the setting sun. These Neolithic giants stood out among the throng of people. The Isle of Lewis might be the end of the road, yet a crowd of nearly 200 had trekked to this ancient site in the Outer Hebrides in the far north of Scotland to bear witness to a most unusual spectacle and state their spiritual need.


Callanish (or Calanais) which comprises two other stone circles in addition to the main site was built at least 7,000 years ago as a lunar calendar, and may have been longer. Earliest village life discovered so far, in north Scotland has been dated as 8000BC but the ancient legendary land of Lemuria is said to have hosted civilisation for 800,000 years. The Lemuria land mass stretched, when sea-levels were much lower, from the tip of where Antarctica is now, up the east coast of the Americas to the southern edge of Greenland, along a raised land taking in Cuba and across the sea to include Ireland and Scotland, which means some of the stone monuments of Britain as well as the Pyramids of the Americas may be far older than anyone is prepared to speculate. Stonehenge, for example, is not unique, as similar structures have recently been discovered in Brazil and Russia.


The path of the moon, unlike the reliably annual tracks of the sun, returns to the same point once every 18.613 years. This is the Declination Cycle, from maximum to minimum, and can only be detected if you know what to look for. Every 27.3 days the moon treks from a northern latitude to a southern one and back again, crossing the equator twice. This can be observed by daily watching the point on the eastern horizon at which the moon rises. This moonrise point slowly progresses 48 minutes later each day along the horizon from due east(lunar equinox) to a northernmost point in the northeast(northern declination), back across the equator(lunar equinox again) to a southernmost point in the southeast(southern declination), then back through the lunar equinox again. It does that circuit 13 times per year. The invisible part is that every year over a 9-year period the northern declination reaches to a degree further north and the southern declination to a degree further south. Therefore at every 18.6 years a maximum declination point, north and south, is reached, called the Major Standstill. If all this is hard to visualise, imagine a very long vertical corridor(world) with an iceberg at either end(poles) and a furnace in the middle(equator). In this corridor is a movable fan(moon), the source of air-movement in the corridor. Pretend this movable fan is going up and down every 27 days, one beat or cycle being from a halfway point between top iceberg and furnace(N dec), thence across the furnace(LE), finally reaching a halfway point between furnace and lower iceberg(S dec), and then returning. This is does continually, without end. When on the southern side of the furnace as seen from the northern hemisphere(S dec) this fan blows hot air all over the place, including back up the corridor towards the upper iceberg. The warmed air doesn't get very far up and only affects the area up to about halfway(30Ndeg lat). In summer months it can do heat damage around smaller latitudes on the northern side of the equator. Witness Hurricane Alberto on 12 June. When on the southern side of the equator as seen from the southern hemisphere, when the moon is near the S dec, it blows cold air all over the place, including any countries or regions at southern latitudes. Witness the snow dump of 12 June. Winter southern declinations always bring snow to the South Island.


Lunar standstill is the ancient name given to the time the moon reaches its maximum declination after 18.6 years. Callanish plots this slow progress, building to a crescendo in the 19th year at the lunar standstill - when the path of the moon is so low that it seems to walk along the horizon before setting within the stone circle. All stone circles reflect the lunar standstill event in some way, indicating the importance the ancients placed on it. There was good reason. 2006 is the year of Major Standstill or maximum declination. On S dec. day in NZ, 12 June, we experienced the biggest snowfall this winter. The May S dec. was on the 16th and just happened to be the coldest day in May for the whole country. Tekapo got down to -5.9degC. In the ancient past declination warned you of what temperatures to expect because of moon-influenced air-flows, so state-of-the-art technology then was the erection of a stone circle to keep track of the moon's movements. Stonehenge utilises long banks of earth known as the Avenue to depict the minor and major standstill years. Because the Stonehenge site is elevated, the Avenue stretches out along the plain below and is sighted from the Heel Stone. But where a stone circle was on a plain, extra stones were usually placed in a viewable position on a hill. To the south-west of Callanish is a low, undulating hill known to the local people in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach - the old woman of the moors, or Sleeping Beauty. The contours look irresistibly like a reclining woman. At the lunar standstill the moon rises from behind this hill, tip-toes across her supine body and sets four hours later behind the Clisham, another sacred hill. This tiptoeing moonwalk will happen throughout this summer once a month until September, and will draw hundreds for a number of reasons. Some people come to witness the astro archaeological event, some just to worship this unusual full moon, and locals to witness the "goddess" walking the earth.


The goddess, though, was keeping a very low profile. On the day before full moon, 10 June, the moon was almost full and proved a disappointment as the cloud cover was too thick for any moonbeams to break through. Despite intense drumming and long, low drones on the digeridoo to lift the clouds, the moon remained hidden. By half past eight the next and actual full moon night, Callanish was humming with even more people. As the evening crept forward and the sun sank slowly in the north, people waited, some hugged the stones and others performed rituals. The moon threatened another non-appearance. Suddenly at midnight, when hope was almost lost the atmosphere changed. A shimmering light was seen in the west. Gently, teasingly from behind the body of the Sleeping Beauty, the moon began her slow ascent. It was a huge, fat, sleepy, creamy circle, full and enormous - it transported everyone to a time when others would have watched this same event here at least five millennia ago.


An ancient cry rose from among the stones and joyous shouts echoed around. But then, strangest and most extraordinary of all there came the sound of singing. Psalms, Gaelic Free Church hymns, flooded the air as God-fearing villagers inched forward into the circle. They had come to remind the unchurched of the deity they believed should be worshiped instead of the idolatry. Slowly, the drums and pipes and whistles of the alternative New Agers changed their beat to compliment the marching Christian singers. The spiritual did come to Callanish, but perhaps not in the way that some of the far-travelled searchers had envisaged. With the magnificent moon-oriented stones still standing tall, paganism is still considered a threat to modern religious thinking, even though the dust of many centuries has blown over the ancients' graves. Until western religion reasonably tolerates alternatives, stone circles such as Callanish will not again have a recognised place in weather, season and climate prediction.


In NZ during a major standstill year winter southern declinations usually bring intense snowfalls to the lower half of the South Island. 2006 is again standstill year, threatening to cause big winter snowfalls around S dec. dates until September. The last time major standstill occurred was during 1986/87, and a record snow cover occurred in Canterbury and Southland in 1986. Major standstill before that was 1968. Southern declination was 22 June 1968 and we can go to history books, for example the Meteorological Gazette, and read:

June 1968: “25th - 30th - strong NW to SW winds, several troughs crossing country, snow to low levels..especially around Queenstown”.

July 1968: "In Southland, Otago and inland South Canterbury temperatures 2F-5F below average, the coldest month since July 1938. The snowfalls on the last 4 days of June on the high country of both islands and to low levels in the South Island persisted for the first 4 days of July. Frosty conditions, especially during the first half of the month, allowed little opportunity for the snow to melt over the greater part of the South Island. On the hills to the SW of Mossburn at 2000ft altitude snow depth was 2 ft, and 10 ft in the drifts, remaining frozen there for 3 weeks. Very severe conditions were experienced, even at quite low altitudes where snow cover persisted. TaraHills at 1600 ft (488M) had hard snow lying on the ground the whole month, never less than 5.5 inches in depth. The mean temp of 23.2F (-4.9C) was the lowest ever recorded in New Zealand below 3000 ft. On 8 days the temperature failed to reach 32F (0C), the lowest maximum being 20F (-6.7C) on the 14th. The air temperature fell below 0F (-17.8C) on the 6th, 7th and 14th.." Southern declination was close - on 9 July.


There is little doubt it was unusually cold. Major standstill years before that were 1950, 1931/2, 1913/14, 1894/5. A new NZ record for lowest temperature was set at Ophir on 3 September 1950, and this was to remain unbroken for 50 years. 25 June 1895 saw a severe snowstorm in Canterbury. Other bad winter years on cycle halfway points like 1939, 1945 and 1992 also spring to mind. Perhaps one day we may see more astronomical regard for the cycles of weather. Until then we can note that winter southern declination dates for the major standstill year 2006 were May 16, June 12, July 10, August 6 and September 3.

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